US metals tariffs, currencies and oil in focus
The benchmark Nikkei 225 index rose 0.54 percent, or 115.35 points, to close at 21,368.07 and the Topix closed up 0.35 percent.
The Topix Iron & Steel index rose 0.56 percent as steel producers mostly clung to gains. Kobe Steel rose 3.02 percent and JFE Holdings added 0.2 percent, although Nisshin Steel slipped 0.36 percent. Technology names mostly traded higher, with Nintendo rising 4.06 percent.
Steel producers gained on the back of tariff-related developments out of Washington, with Posco up 3.02 percent and Hyundai Steel rising 3.15 percent by the end of the day.
Hong Kong's Hang Seng Index jumped 1.69 percent, or 509.64 points, by 3:05 p.m. HK/SIN as all of its sectors traded in positive territory. The heavily weighted financials sector was firmly higher: HSBC advanced 0.72 percent and insurer AIA added 3.03 percent ahead of the market close.
Mainland China markets closed higher, with gains steepening after the release of upbeat trade data. The Shanghai composite added 0.54 percent to close at 3,289.29 and the Shenzhen composite rose 1.01 percent to finish at 1,856.47.
Meanwhile, health care and consumer stocks were the best-performing sectors on the blue chip CSI 300 index.
The gains came after Chinese exports in February jumped 44.5 percent from one year ago, Reuters reported. That was above the median 13.6 percent rise estimated in a Reuters poll.
Down Under, the S&P/ASX 200 tacked on 0.69 percent to close at 5,942.90. Most of the index's sub-indexes notched gains, although the materials and energy sectors were in the red after commodities struggled in the last session.
Possible US tariff exemptions
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders on Thursday said recently announced tariffs on steel and aluminum imports could include "potential carve-outs ... based on national security." The president is expected to sign off on the tariff plan this week, she said.
While that was positive news for Canada and Mexico, trade-related concerns were unlikely to completely evaporate.
"[T]he potential for more, rather than less tariffs for China and Europe, remains the key risk," said Rodrigo Catril, a senior FX strategist at National Australia Bank, in a morning note.
Cohn, Trump's top economic advisor and a free trade advocate, had resigned after the president announced last week that tariffs of 25 percent and 10 percent would be implemented on steel and aluminum imports, respectively.
Markets also found "further reprieve after White House trade advisor Peter Navarro indicated he was not a candidate to replace the outgoing Gary Cohn," Mizuho Bank economist Zhu Huani wrote in a note.
The greenback was steady against a basket of currencies, with the dollar index trading at 89.585 at 2:48 p.m. HK/SIN after touching a two-week low of 89.407 in the last session.
Against the yen, the dollar last traded at 105.96, slipping once more below the 106 level after closing at 106.80 on Wednesday. The U.S. currency had dipped from the 106.1 handle to levels around 105.5 on the back of Cohn's resignation during Wednesday Asia hours.
Meanwhile, oil pared some losses after tumbling in the previous session due to trade concerns. U.S. West Texas Intermediate crude advanced 0.16 percent to trade at $61.25 per barrel after settling 2.3 percent lower on Wednesday. Brent crude futures were up 0.16 percent at $64.44.
On the data front, fourth-quarter gross domestic product in Japan was revised higher to 1.6 percent from an initial estimate of 0.5 percent, Reuters said. That was also above the 0.9 percent increase projected in a Reuters poll.
Of note, the Bank of Japan began its monetary policy meeting on Thursday.
The European Central Bank, meanwhile, will announce its rates decision during European hours. The central bank is expected to remain cautious and keep its policy unchanged.
Europe markets: focus on ECB meeting
As a result, the euro initially rose against the dollar on the more hawkish movement from the central bank, but later fell to trade at $1.233 at about 4:30 p.m. GMT (11:30 a.m. ET).
On the other hand, food and beverage were up by more than 2 percent following some rating upgrades.
Near the top of the European benchmark was ACS, finishing up by more than 7.7 percent, following news that it is studying a joint offer with Atlantia to buy Abertis. However, shares of Boskalis Westmin sank nearly 11 percent after reporting its latest results. The firm expects a mixed outlook for its markets in 2018.
Trade war concerns remain
Data released Thursday morning showed German manufacturing orders falling sharply in January, due to lower foreign orders.
Meanwhile, market sentiment has also been affected by the threat of a trade war between Europe and the U.S. over aluminum and steel tariffs proposed by President Donald Trump.
The U.S. leader looked likely to implement steel and aluminium tariffs later Thursday.
Stocks close higher after Trump signs tariffs that exclude Mexico and Canada
As of 3:21 p.m. ET, the S&P 500 traded 0.5 percent higher, with utilities and consumer staples as the best-performing sector. The Dow Jones industrial average traded 100 points higher. The Nasdaq composite rose 0.5 percent. The major averages traded lower earlier in the session.
"The main focus is on tariffs," said Peter Cardillo, chief market economist at First Standard Financial. "The question for the market is what do these tariffs mean in terms of their economic impact."
President Donald Trump will make an announcement regarding the tariffs Thursday afternoon. Earlier on Thursday, Trump tweeted: "Looking forward to 3:30 P.M. meeting today at the White House. We have to protect & build our Steel and Aluminum Industries while at the same time showing great flexibility and cooperation toward those that are real friends and treat us fairly on both trade and the military."
However, NBC News reported that the details of the announcement are still being finalized and that a proclamation signed by Trump could be largely "symbolic."
Trump said last week he wanted to implement a 25 percent tariff on steel imports and a 10 percent tariff on aluminum imports without exempting certain countries like Canada and Mexico. The announcement sparked fears that a trade war could take place in the near future.
The announcement was also followed by the resignation of Gary Cohn, Trump's top economic advisor. Cohn opposed the implementation of tariffs and his departure sent ripples across financial markets.
"The back-and-forth you're seeing in the market is investors trying to determine whether the tariffs will go through," said Brent Schutte, chief investment strategist at Northwestern Mutual Wealth Management. "I think people are looking at the tariffs through the lens of what happened in the 1930s when we implemented tariffs. But the backdrop is much more different now than it was back then."
Those fears were quelled somewhat after White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters Wednesday afternoon that that Canada and Mexico could be exempt from the tariffs. Two sources later told CNBC that Trump is considering 30-day exemption for Canada and Mexico, which would be tied to negotiations on the North American Free Trade Agreement.
In economic news, weekly jobless claims increased by 21,000 to 231,000 last week, bouncing back from a 48-year low.
Investors also looked ahead to the release of the Bureau of Labor Statistics' monthly jobs report. Economists polled by Reuters expect the economy to have added 200,000 jobs last month. But most investors will be looking at the average hourly earnings growth after January's print helped spark the most recent stock-market correction.
"Last month's very strong average hourly earnings was a blip in the radar," said Andrew Chamberlain, chief economist at Glassdoor. "We're seeing wage growth, just at a slower pace."
In corporate news, Cigna announced it plans to buy Express Scripts for $67 billion in a cash-and-stock deal. Cigna would find a new partner in Express Scripts, after antitrust regulators last year denied a Cigna and Anthem combination as anti-competitive. Express Scripts shares rose more than 9 percent on the news.
—CNBC's Mike Calia contributed to this report