Tokyo stocks sank Wednesday, with the Nikkei index briefly falling over 600 points to below the 23,000 line for the first time since November, as Middle East tensions escalated after Iran fired missiles at Iraqi bases that host U.S. troops.
The 225-issue Nikkei Stock Average ended down 370.96 points, or 1.57 percent, from Tuesday at 23,204.76, its lowest close since Dec. 4. The broader Topix index of all First Section issues on the Tokyo Stock Exchange finished 23.65 points, or 1.37 percent, lower at 1,701.40.
Investors flocked to safe-haven assets, with the U.S. dollar briefly dropping to a three-month low of 107.65 yen in early trading before moving back above the 108 yen line. Bonds and commodities like gold were also in high demand.
Accompanied by declines in other Asian share markets, a broad range of issues in Tokyo were sold, including in the marine transportation, precision instrument and real estate sectors.
The market turmoil was triggered by the launch of more than a dozen ballistic missiles by Iran targeting at least two Iraqi military bases hosting U.S. troops and coalition forces, in retaliation for the killing of a top Iranian general last Friday.
"Investors had thought there wouldn't be a direct military action from Iran," said Yutaka Miura, senior technical analyst at Mizuho Securities Co. "Shares tumbled on fears the conflict could escalate."
However, stocks trimmed earlier losses in the afternoon after a tweet from Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, which said, "We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression," and U.S. President Donald Trump suggested damage from the attacks was limited.
"That provided relief to the market," said Makoto Sengoku, a market analyst at the Tokai Tokyo Research Institute. He added market players will remain cautious amid the U.S.-Iran tensions and are awaiting a statement from Trump set to be released later in the day.
Zarif's comments also helped put the brakes on the yen's appreciation. At 5 p.m., it fetched 108.41-42 yen, compared with 108.41-51 yen in New York at 5 p.m. Tuesday.
The euro was quoted at $1.1151-1152 and 120.89-93 yen against $1.1151-1161 and 120.77-87 yen in New York late Tuesday afternoon.
Gold futures jumped to a fresh record high at the Tokyo Commodity Exchange, and the yield on benchmark Japanese 10-year government bond ended interdealer trading at minus 0.015 percent, down 0.005 percentage point from last Tuesday's close. Bond yields move inversely to prices.
Worries about U.S.-Iran tensions lifted oil prices in Tokyo, with Middle East crude oil futures briefly spiking to the highest level in seven and a half months at the commodity exchange.
On the TSE's First Section, declining issues outnumbered advancers 1,981 to 150, while 30 ended unchanged.
The stronger yen weighed on automakers, among other export-related issues, with Suzuki Motor plunging 106 yen, or 2.3 percent, to 4,435 yen, Honda Motor slumping 63 yen, or 2.0 percent, to 3,026 yen and Toyota Motor losing 98 yen, or 1.3 percent, to 7,617 yen.
Marine transportation issues took a hit from fears that the heightened tensions in the Middle East will push up fuel prices. Kawasaki Kisen collapsed 105 yen, or 5.9 percent, to 1,665 yen, Mitsui O.S.K. Lines tumbled 112 yen, or 3.9 percent, to 2,791 yen and Nippon Yusen was down 59 yen, or 3.1 percent, at 1,872 yen.
Trading volume on the main section rose to 1,453.11 million shares from 1,157.95 million shares on Tuesday.