The earthquake shook northeastern Japan toward the end of the Asian trading session. Tsunami alerts were issued for areas as far away as the mainland U.S. West coast.
The quake caused a selloff in global stock markets, led by sharp drops in insurance companies. Japan's Nikkei closed down 1.7 percent. The yen remained stable, however, because it is seen as a relatively safe investment for international traders.
The prospect of a short-term drop in demand for crude from Japan, the world's third-largest oil consumer, sent oil prices below $100 for the first time this month. Crude fell $3.24 to $99.46 a barrel.
Stock futures briefly recovered some of their losses ahead of the start of trading after the Commerce Department reported that retail sales rose 1 percent in February, their biggest sales gain in four months. Shoppers laid out more cash for cars, clothing and gadgets in February, leading to an eighth month of retail sales gains. Analysts had only expected a gain of 0.8 percent.
But stock futures soon gave back their gains.
Ahead of the bell, Dow Jones industrial average futures fell 44 points, or 0.4 percent, to 11,876. S&P 500 futures fell 2.9, or 0.2 percent, to 1,286. Nasdaq 100 futures are fell 6.5, or 0.3 percent, to 2,274.