Sebastian Vettel took his fourth consecutive pole position at Suzuka with a superior performance in the Red Bull RB8.
The defending world champion was quickest in Q2, and then set a mighty lap of one minute, 30.839 seconds early in Q3 to take provisional pole.
Vettel was set to improve further until Kimi Raikkonen spun his Lotus into the Spoon Curve gravel, causing a yellow flag in the middle sector when all the top ten drivers were trying to go faster.
Despite that, Sebastian achieved his 34th pole position in Formula One. His impressive record means the 25-year-old German is now third in the all-time list, one ahead of Alain Prost and Jim Clark.
Mark Webber completed Red Bull Racing’s first front row lock out of the year, but was 0.2 seconds down on his team-mate.
Home crowd favourite Kamui Kobayashi will start third. He was fourth fastest for Sauber, but will gain a place when third-placed Jenson Button is given his gearbox change penalty.
However, the Japanese driver might lose this position due to not slowing down efficiently following Raikkonen’s spin at Spoon Curve.
Both Button’s McLaren team-mate Lewis Hamilton and world championship leader Fernando Alonso appeared to be hampered by the yellow flags. Alonso’s Ferrari was only seventh, ahead of Raikkonen and Hamilton.
Ferrari was already struggling for pace in Japan, with Felipe Massa unable to do any better than P11.
Romain Grosjean was fifth fastest for Lotus, with Sergio Perez demonstrating Sauber’s pace with sixth.
Nico Hulkenberg edged out Force India team-mate Paul di Resta by less than a tenth to make it into Q3, eventually taking P10. But the German has also received a gearbox-change penalty.
Mercedes had been centre of attention in the build-up to the race following the news announcement on driver line-up. As for the team’s on-track performance, it was a disappointing result for both Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg.
The former waited until the final seconds of Q1 to set a time and only just scraped through in P16, before taking P13 in Q2, two places ahead of his team-mate Rosberg.
It was another miserable qualifying session for Bruno Senna. He got boxed in behind Jean-Eric Vergne’s Toro Rosso at the chicane on his last Q1 lap – waving his hand in angry and a slow time.
When Schumacher delivered his final lap, Senna was demoted down to P18, just behind Vergne.
Pastor Maldonado couldn’t do much to raise the Williams team spirits this time, and will start the Japanese Grand Prix in P14.
While at the back go the grid, Heikki Kovalainen’s Caterham is ahead of Narain Karthikeyan’s HRT as usual, but things were shaken up in between, with Timo Glock and Pedro de la Rosa ahead of Charles Pic and Vitaly Petrov.
Qualifying positions for the Japanese Grand Prix:
1. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull-Renault 1m30.839s
2. Mark Webber Red Bull-Renault 1m31.090s
3. Kamui Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari 1m31.700s
4. Romain Grosjean Lotus-Renault 1m31.989s
5. Sergio Perez Sauber-Ferrari 1m32.022s
6. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1m32.114s
7. Kimi Raikkonen Lotus-Renault 1m32.208s
8. Jenson Button McLaren-Mercedes 1m31.294s*
9. Lewis Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes 1m32.327s
10. Felipe Massa Ferrari 1m32.293s
11. Paul di Resta Force India-Mercedes 1m32.327s
13. Pastor Maldonado Williams-Renault 1m32.512s
13. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1m32.625s
14. Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1m32.954s
15. Nico Hulkenberg Force India-Mercedes no time*
16. Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1m33.368s
17. Bruno Senna Williams-Renault 1m33.405s
18. Heikki Kovalainen Caterham-Renault 1m34.657s
19. Timo Glock Marussia-Cosworth 1m35.213s
20. Pedro de la Rosa HRT-Cosworth 1m35.385s
21. Charles Pic Marussia-Cosworth 1m35.429s
22. Vitaly Petrov Caterham-Renault 1m35.432s
23. Michael Schumacher Mercedes 1m32.469s**
24. Narain Karthikeyan HRT-Cosworth 1m36.734s
107 per cent time: 1m38.471s
*Five-place grid penalty for gearbox change
**Ten-place grid penalty for causing a collision during the Singapore Grand Prix