With an “intent to murder”, a man identified as 21-year-old Kazuhiro Kusakabe drove a small vehicle into Takeshita Street in Tokyo’s fashion district of Harajuku at 10 minutes past midnight, a police spokesman told AFP.
According to national broadcaster NHK, Kusakabe told police he was acting in “retribution for the death penalty” without giving more precise details.
NHK footage showed a small box vehicle with a smashed front and paramedics carrying people on stretchers into ambulances.
Local media said a container with kerosine inside was found in the rental car, where the attack occurred. The attacker reportedly drove the vehicle from the western region of Osaka.
One witness told NHK it was a “ghastly scene.”
“I saw some guys collapsed on the street. As I walked closer toward the scene, many more people had fallen on the ground. By the time I reached the exact place, paramedics were already there helping people,” he said.
Another witness who runs a clothing shop in the area said: “I am shocked that something like this happened on Takeshita Street.”
Police immediately cordoned off the street, which during the day is usually packed with tourists trying to get a taste of Japan’s extravagant youth and food culture.
One college student suffered serious injuries during the attack and was undergoing surgery, the police spokesman told AFP. Local media reports said the student was in a coma.
Kusakabe was arrested on suspicion of attempted murder, police said.
‘Fit for trial?’
According to local media, Kusakabe hit a total of eight people and assaulted another on the street, which was closed to car traffic at the time before visitors would pack the area to celebrate New Year.
The vehicle hit its first victim about 30 meters into the narrow street before knocking down seven more over the next 100 meters, according to the Sankei Shimbun newspaper.
There is no information so far to suggest foreign tourists were among the injured, the police spokesman said.
TV Asahi said officers were investigating whether the suspect is fit for trial.
Takeshita Street is packed with small shops and is considered the centre of youth culture and fashion in Japan, attracting tens of thousands of international tourists every day.
Unlike in other major cities, New Year in Tokyo is a relatively muted affair.
There is no major fireworks display and no central point where drunken revellers gather to see in the New Year.
Instead, Japanese people tend to see in the New Year with families and quietly go to the shrine to pray for good fortune in the year to come.
By midday Tuesday, hundreds of thousands of tourists had returned to the street filled with bright pink ornaments, although blue tarps covering the scene of the case remained.