Hamilton takes Fuji pole
Championship rival Massa qualifies fifth
Lewis Hamilton has given himself the very best chance of extending his World Championship lead after taking pole position for the Japanese Grand Prix.
The McLaren Mercedes driver vaulted to the top of the timesheets late on in the third session at the 2.835-mile Fuji Speedway with a time of one minute 18.404 seconds.
Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen starts second after lapping in a time of 1:18.644s, while Hamilton's team-mate Heikki Kovalainen took third ahead of Singapore Grand Prix winner Fernando Alonso.
Hamilton's title rival, Ferrari's Felipe Massa, will start fifth on the grid.
"I'm very happy, the team have done a phenomenal job," Hamilton said. "We will push forward with the strategy we have tomorrow."
Massa, who appeared set for victory in Singapore before a pit-stop blunder put paid to his chances, could only manage a time of 1:18.874s and faces an uphill challenge if he to prevent Hamilton from edging closer to the title.
BMW Sauber's Robert Kubica, who had gone fastest in practice earlier on Saturday, will start sixth while Jarno Trulli and Timo Glock - who was quickest in session one - gave Toyota a boost in their home race by claiming seventh and eighth respectively.
Toro Rosso pair Sebastian Vettel and Sebastien Bourdais round out the top 10.
Red Bull's David Coulthard narrowly missed out on progressing to Q3 and will start in 11th place while Honda's Jenson Button could only manage a disappointing 18th.
Although the earlier final practice session was damp the circuit was starting to dry out by the start of qualifying.
Massa soon went top with a time of 1:18.727s before Hamilton bettered the Brazilian with his first timed lap of 1:18.232s.
Glock, who also set the fastest time in Friday's second free practice session, then went quickest with a 1:18.138s effort while Coulthard leapt out of the drop zone to go fourth quickest.
Alonso also briefly looked to be heading out but went sixth quickest with his last lap to progress to session two.
The failure of BMW Sauber's Nick Heidfeld to progress was the big surprise of session one, while Rubens Barrichello and Honda team-mate Button and Force India's Adrian Sutil and Giancarlo Fisichella also dropped out.
The Ferraris were first to emerge from the pits in the second session and Raikkonen set the pace with a time of 1:17.733s.
Massa then bettered his team-mate by nearly half a second to go top, with Hamilton going second with a 1:17.462s effort.
Happy with their qualifying times, the pair played no further part in the session, with Coulthard, Renault's Nelson Piquet, Red Bull's Mark Webber and Williams pair Kazuki Nakajima and Nico Rosberg being eliminated.
Glock was first out in the final session and although he was the first to clock a timed lap, Raikkonen quickly went top with a 1:18.890s.
Hamilton's first effort saw him go third but the 23-year-old leapt to the top late on and remained there to claim his sixth pole of the season.
"It is going to be a tough race with Kimi and Fernando also strong," Hamilton added.
"I just try to take the race as it comes. I'm definitely thinking of the World Championship.
"I approach each race as I have throughout the season and I'll just try and score some good points."
Meanwhile, defending champion Raikkonen, who stands 27 points behind Hamilton, said he was just thinking of picking up the points for the team even though he still has a mathematical chance of taking the title.
"I think it a small chance but I try to win races," he said. "We want to win the Championship as a team and we will see what we can do.
"If we can win it would be nice but if not we will try to get maximum points."
But Massa was at a loss to explain his poor performance in Q3.
"Q1 and Q2 the car was great, in Q3 I don't know what was happening, I didn't have the grip as before," he told ITV1.
"It won't be easy but we need to do our best."
With three races, including Sunday's, remaining this season, Hamilton's lead over Massa in the Drivers' Championship currently stands at seven points.
Japanese Grand Prix, qualifying:
1. Lewis Hamilton (Britain) McLaren 1:18.404
2. Kimi Raikkonen (Finland) Ferrari 1:18.644
3. Heikki Kovalainen (Finland) McLaren 1:18.821
4. Fernando Alonso (Spain) Renault 1:18.852
5. Felipe Massa (Brazil) Ferrari 1:18.874
6. Robert Kubica (Poland) BMW Sauber 1:18.979
7. Jarno Trulli (Italy) Toyota 1:19.026
8. Timo Glock (Germany) Toyota 1:19.118
9. Sebastian Vettel (Germany) Toro Rosso 1:19.638
10. Sebastien Bourdais (France) Toro Rosso 1:20.167
11. David Coulthard (Britain) Red Bull 1:18.187
12. Nelson Piquet (Brazil) Renault 1:18.274
13. Mark Webber (Australia) Red Bull 1:18.354
14. Kazuki Nakajima (Japan) Williams 1:18.594
15. Nico Rosberg (Germany) Williams 1:18.672
16. Nick Heidfeld (Germany) BMW Sauber 1:18.835
17. Rubens Barrichello (Brazil) Honda 1:18.882
18. Jenson Button (Britain) Honda 1:19.100
19. Adrian Sutil (Germany) Force India 1:19.163
20. Giancarlo Fisichella (Italy) Force India 1:19.910