Japan has picked Lockheed Martin's F-35 as its next mainstay fighter, Defense Minister Yasuo Ichikawa said on Tuesday.

Its choice of the radar-evading plane over combat proven but less stealthy rivals comes as uncertainty simmers over neighboring North Korea after the death of its leader Kim Jong-il and as China aims to introduce its own stealth fighter jets.

The decision will be a shot in the arm for the F-35 program, which has been restructured twice in the past two years, and could increase the odds that South Korea will follow suit with its own order for 60 fighters.

The F-35, which is in an early production stage, was competing against Boeing's F/A-18 and the Eurofighter Typhoon, made by a consortium of European companies including BAE Systems, for a deal that could be worth up to $8 billion.

Japan counts the United States as its key security ally and regularly conducts joint military drills with U.S. forces, and had been widely expected to choose the F-35.

Fighter jets' stealth technology has drawn heavy attention in Japan since China, which has a long-running territorial dispute with Japan, confirmed in January it had held its first test flight of the J-20 stealth fighter jet.

(Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Michael Watson)