Driver ploughs into crowd ushering in New Year in Tokyo

In a rare instance of rampage in Japan, a 21-year-old man in a rented car deliberately ploughed into pedestrians on a famous Tokyo street, which was closed to vehicles for the New Year, injuring nine people.

Kazuhiro Kusakabe, who was arrested for attempted murder, confessed to having the intent to kill when he rammed his car through the crowd in Harajuku’s Takeshita Street at 12.10am on Tuesday, said the Tokyo Metropolitan Police.

At first, Kusakabe claimed that he wanted to commit “an act of terror” but later said he was “acting in retaliation for the death penalty system”. He also said there was no need for him “to make any excuses for his action”.

Kusakabe, whose occupation is unknown, knocked down eight men aged between 19 and 51 as he drove about a third of the way along the 350m street. He came to a stop when he crashed the rented vehicle into a building. The vehicle bore an Osaka licence plate.

One of those injured, a 19-year-old undergraduate, remains unconscious in critical condition in hospital. Four others suffered severe injuries such as fractures and head injuries, while the remaining three suffered minor bruises.

The ninth victim, a 19-year-old man, was assaulted by Kusakabe after he fled on foot. He was arrested 20 minutes later at the nearby Yoyogi Park.

Takeshita Street, regarded as the epicentre of Tokyo’s eccentric youth culture, had been closed to all vehicles from 10pm on Monday to 5am yesterday as heavy foot traffic was expected to and from the nearby Meiji Jingu, a major shrine where Japanese go to pray for good luck in the New Year.

Kusakabe reportedly told the police that he had planned his attack on the Meiji Shrine area, but had been deterred by massive road blocks in the area.

A tank with 20 litres of kerosene was also found inside the rented car, which he said was intended to be used to set the vehicle ablaze after the rampage.

Narrow Takeshita Street is typically bustling with tourists during the day but was relatively sparse when Kusakabe drove through it, local media reported.

One eyewitness told public broadcaster NHK of witnessing a “ghastly scene” with people collapsing on the street.

Another passer-by spoke of a lucky escape, saying: “It scares me knowing that I’d have been hit if the attack had happened five minutes later.”

It remains unclear if Kusakabe’s intent was to make a statement against the death penalty in general, or if he was targeting any particular execution.

Japan executed 15 prisoners last year. Most of those executed, or 13, were cultists of the Aum Shinrikyo group that was responsible for the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo Metro during morning rush hour, which killed 13 and sickened thousands of others.

The Mainichi daily cited investigative sources as saying that they were looking into any connection between Kusakabe and the Aum Shinrikyo cult.

Meanwhile in Germany, police have detained a 50-year-old man on suspicion of ramming his car into a crowd of people after midnight on New Year’s Eve at a crowded plaza in the north-western town of Bottrop.

Four people were injured in what the authorities say may have been a xenophobic attack, Reuters reported.

People of Syrian and Afghan origin were among those injured, a police spokesman said.

According to a statement by police and prosecutors yesterday, the man made racist comments when he was later arrested. “In addition, investigators have preliminary information about a mental illness of the driver,” the statement said.

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