Already waning demand for riskier assets further withered after U.S. economic data showed on Thursday a rise in jobless claims. Orders for durable goods also unexpectedly fell, casting doubt about the pace of recovery in the world's No. 1 economy.
Add to that anxiety that the Greek debt crisis may hit a new pitch if Greece suffers rating downgrades, investors honed in on safer assets and shunned those tied to risk and economic growth.
Indicators connected with manufacturing are not so bad, but jobs and spending remain poor, and this is making markets rather nervous, said Kenichi Hirano, operating officer at Tachibana Securities, referring to U.S. data.
The yen held ground at 1-year highs against the euro at 121.24 yen. So alluring was its safe-haven appeal that investors overlooked Japanese data, which showed the world's No. 2 economy mired in deflation.
The sour mood kept Japan's Nikkei <.N225> flat, although Toyota Motor Corp <7203.T> rose 1.5 percent. Investors were cheered after its president apologized for safety problems in its cars.
The MSCI index of Asian shares excluding Japan <.MIAPJ0000PUS> was up just 0.45 percent.
Commodity prices were lackluster. Oil prices bounced 0.5 percent after falling over 2 percent overnight.
Safe-haven gold was firm after rising 1 percent the previous day.
The market's wariness of dismal fundamentals was epitomized in sterling's weakness.
Sterling was on the defensive at $1.5276 after hitting a nine-month low on Thursday, hurt by concerns the UK economy is so weak that it might need to do more quantitative easing.
Sterling really suffered, Barclays said in a note to clients. The euro perhaps performed better than expected given the ongoing gloom over Greece and some very weak numbers.
Barclays said the selling could persist if Britain's second release growth report on Friday disappoints. Markets forecast the British economy to have grown just 0.2 percent in the fourth quarter, from the previous quarter.
(Additional reporting by Elaine Lies in TOKYO)
(Reporting by Koh Gui Qing; Editing by Kazunori Takada)