A Japanese man drove a minivan directly into a crowd of pedestrians out for New Year’s celebrations just after midnight Tuesday morning, injuring eight people, in what he said was retaliation for the “death penalty,” police said.

Police spokesman Satoshi Mishima said a 21-year-old man had been arrested, but said police were still investigating the precise motives behind the attack.

“I hit them with an intention to kill,” Mishima said the man had told police. “I did that to retaliate against the death penalty.”

Some media reports said the man had linked the attack to the executions in July of 13 members of the Aum Shinrikyo or Aum Supreme Truth cult, who were responsible for a 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway.

Police said they were still investigating whether the man was actually connected to the doomsday cult.

Japan’s NHK World said he was driving a rental van registered in Osaka, the western city where two other executions were carried out last month over a 1988 robbery and murder case. 


Pedestrians walk past a site where a vehicle plowed into crowds celebrating New Year's Day in a popular tourist area of Harajuku in Tokyo on Tuesday. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)

The crash occurred on Takeshita Street, a popular street for tourists and trendy young Japanese people in the fashionable Harajuku neighborhood. NHK World said the street, which had been closed to traffic, was packed with people paying a New Year’s visit to the Meiji Shrine, which is supposed to bring good luck.

It showed footage of a small van with a completely smashed front.

Police said one teenage boy had been taken to the hospital after the attack, where he is undergoing an operation.

The man was also carrying kerosene in his car, police said. Media reports added he had initially planned to spread the kerosene around to start a fire, but had been unable to do so because of security restrictions.

After the crash, the man fled the scene but was later arrested, police said.

Shoko Asahara, the leader of the Aum Shinrikyo, was the first of 13 cult members to be hanged in July for the subway attack that killed 13 people and poisoned more than 6,000 others. 

The two executions in Osaka brought the total for the year to 15, the highest total since 2008. Japan and the United States are the only two major developed countries that still employ the death penalty, and public opinion here is generally supportive of its use. 

Another 109 other people remain on death row.